Personal cinema is deeply invoked, too deeply, in Ross McElwee’s Photographic Memory, in which two threads are joined: that of the filmmaker looking upon his young adult son with bafflement and that of finding old photographs and journal entries about his own youth at that age, which he spent in France.
The photos, over time, have supressed their original documentary function and become mysterious and full of half-remembered and potential stories. In essence, they become a reference not to the past but to a future, personal and highly private reality where their meaning is pondered and (re-)discovered. McElwee does this himself, by traveling again to France to tease out the meaning of his time there at his son's age, and finding new connections and producing a new film, all this out of old photos.
Yet this privateness is truly individual—the segments in France pursue the idea that photography does not capture truth or reality necessarily but always refer forward to new experiences and stories, as well as revisions to current memories, all conjured after the photos were taken. The problem in argument and meaning lies with the other side of the film, its inspiration—footage of McElwee’s son. Because of the photos of the past provoked the revelations and resolutions of the present, the film in a way negates itself for a public audience. Photographic Memory is not a narrative but rather source material for a future investigation, a future trip, a future invention into the meanings and obscurities of the footage it contains itself, particularly of the son. The footage represents tasks, time capsule assignments, and not ones for the audience but for McElwee and his son alone. Indeed, the film posits photography and cinema as future promises, and this one is a personal promise, for two people alone to pursue.